Forty years ago, my little sisters made history and on April 4, 1977 newspaper headlines read “Sterling High Girls win first ever-state title over 7,000 greet Illinois number one basketball team.” Five years after Title IX passed into legislation mandating equal opportunities for girls in all publicly funded schools, a new generation was born. While our country was struggling with civil rights and gender equity issues a small town team united blacks, whites and Hispanics in one dream – a state championship.

If I close my eyes, I can still see Marche Harris pumping her fist in air after a break away lay up, Fran Smith with her wicked ‘fro soaring at the jump circle, Dawn Smith grabbing weak side boards, Jojo Leseman, running the court like a platoon captain in fast forward, freshman, Amy Eshelman gliding the baseline. And my sister, Karen McKinzie, standing at the line swishing another free throw. Harris, Smith, Leseman, Eshelman and McKinzie names that have marked SHS record books for years.

An odd trio of coaches, Jim McKinzie a retired boys coach, Sue Strong a GAA coordinator and Phil Smith the first African American teacher in the conference fought behind the front line to make sure female athletes were granted equal rights at SHS in those crucial years after Title IX. Before anyone dared to utter words like racism or sexism in public, they shaped a team far ahead of its time indifferent to gender or race. That group of unassuming girls enchanted an entire community. Part of the magic was their cohesiveness. No divas, no superstars, no drama queens, just selfless teammates who knew that they were stronger together than they could ever be alone.

It was too late for me. A 1975 SHS graduate, I became a Redbird and moved to Illinois State University where the first girls state tournament was held on my new home court. I watched with pride from the bleachers of Horton Field house as my little sisters made history under my father’s tutelage.

“What stands out most was how this team brought the community together,” he said reminiscing, “Nothing like it before or since. The Golden Girls were goodwill ambassadors for Sterling, a place no one heard of before was thrown in the limelight. When we returned as state champions, we were wined and dined like celebrities.”

Forty years ago, we had no clue that the old Golden “Girls” would bear daughters who would one day be recognized as Golden Warriors. All we cared about was finally being allowed to play the game we loved. Do the girls that play today know how lucky they are to compete on center court wearing fashion’s latest apparel? To prepare before games in weight rooms and repair afterwards in training rooms? To be immortalized in a state of the art Hall of Fame room?

Stop by the open house at Woodlawn Arts Academy on Friday April 7 from 4:00-7:00 to salute that first state championship team and their coaches. Tip your hat to those pioneers who grew up in flimsy, canvas shoes and one piece gym suits, who played ball when no one was looking or worse yet when people looked and laughed. Pay tribute to those women who gave their heart and soul to dreams that no one understood, dreams that became our daughters’ reality.

When you sink a jumper and drive the baseline young blood, hear our stories whispered from the rafters. Walk tall, be strong, be brave. Be proud of your past, Golden “Girl”. After years of battle, it’s an honor and a privilege to be called a Warrior.

A chapter of my memoir is about the 1977 state championship team.


Comments

  1. Kathleen Pooler

    Heartwarming, inspirational and wonderful story, Pat. I felt like I was right there in the bleachers cheering these girl-warriors on. Loved the photos and slides, too. Thanks for sharing! I also love your new website look😊

    1. Pat McKinzie

      Thanks Kathy and I know that if Title IX had passed a few years earlier that with your fighting spirit you would have been front page news.

  2. Kathleen Pooler

    Heartwarming, inspirational and wonderful story, Pat. I felt like I was right there in the bleachers cheering these girl-warriors on. Loved the photos and slides, too. Thanks for sharing! I also love your new website look😊

  3. Patty Carlson

    I meant Karen not so long after her HS playing years and am always amazed at how humble she is about her achievements…… as are you and the rest of the McKinzie family! What a legacy!! So glad to be able to have one of you in the Carlson family 🙂

  4. Cathy Chester

    You always tell heartwarming, inspiration and fascinating stories. This one is no exception. Thank you for sharing it with us, Pat! Excellent.

  5. Karen

    Awww Sis….you Always know how to put our thoughts into words. This blog is perfect for the special 40th Anniversary of our very unique, ahead of its time, Awesome golden girl team and undefeated year!! Remember, None of us “little sisters” would have been there without you!! Thank you!🏀🏀🏀

    1. Pat McKinzie

      So proud of you baby sister and wish I could be there to celebrate you and dad and your extra special teammates. Be sure to take lots of pictures and hugs for everyone there.

  6. Sherrie Davis Ebersole.....AKA "Vera"

    You know I love you Pat, but I would just like to add that this was a team of 12 not just 5 or 6, we all gave it our all and that hard work payed off big time……like one of our favorite songs as a team, WE ARE FAMILY…….I’ve got all my sisters with me !!

    1. Pat McKinzie

      That is so true Vera. Those other players like you were the heart of the group for without your dedication there would be no team. The selflessness of teammates like you tells the real story behind the scenes of the Golden Girls’ success. Each day you pushed one another to be the best you could be. Both my dad and Karen often talked about the special cohesiveness of this group of girls. Enjoy the celebration and be sure share hugs from me cause WE ARE FAMILY.

  7. Barbara Carlson

    Woo Hoo!! What an inspiring story…I even got nervous watching the video even though I knew the end of the story. And my favorite player…#23!! Thanks for sharing, Pat!

  8. Peg

    Thanks Pat for a heartwarming trip down memory lane and bringing to the forefront the significance of this championship. It definitely was a proud moment for the community and young girls everywhere! Wish I could make it home to celebrate you and your trailblazing little sisters, but grandbaby #1 is expected then. Hugs and high fives to all!

    1. Pat McKinzie

      Congratulations Peggy and be sure to let me know when that new grand baby arrives safely in our world. Unfortunately I won’t be there either for the celebration because we are back in Switzerland, but I will be sure to share your well wishes in my next facetime with family.

  9. Dukes

    It has been great to hear the stories through the years and super proud of Karen to continue to play bball until just a few years ago! A very special tribute for a very special team.

    1. Pat McKinzie

      Yep Dukes that bride of yours never ceases to amaze me. She has continued to remain every bit the Golden Girl – cheerful, active, vibrant, compassionate and fun loving.

  10. Dukes

    It has been great to hear the stories through the years and super proud of Karen to continue to play bball until just a few years ago! A very special tribute for a very special team.

    1. Pat McKinzie

      Yep Dukes that bride of yours never ceases to amaze me. She has continued to remain every bit the Golden Girl – cheerful, active, vibrant, compassionate and fun loving.

  11. Helene Cohen Bludman

    I love this story, one of my favorite in your wonderful book. I bet this time of year brings back many memories for you, Pat.

  12. Debbie

    Pat, I don’t believe girls today even realize how hard it once was to be a female athlete, with coaches scrambling for practice times, money for equipment, and respect from their peers. Today’s young female athletes play in a national arena, with good facilities and equipment, and they have a real shot at turning pro so they can continue playing the sport they love. Bless Title IX pathfinders (like you, my friend!) for blazing the way. I can’t imagine ever going back to those times when education — and sports — were only for the guys!

    1. Pat McKinzie

      Debbie, I think you are right.They have no clue about what we endured to get where we are today. For all the great gains, girls still get slighted in many ways. And there are many parts of the world where girls are not allowed to go to school. Title IX opened doors in the USA, but there is always work to be done when it comes to human rights around the globe.

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